Marcela Sulak
Interviewed by Janice Weizman

Poet, teacher, scholar and translator in five languages, Marcela Sulak has made the permutations of language the center of her life. She took on the role of Director of the Shaindy Rudoff Graduate Program in Creative Writing at Bar-Ilan this spring.
Marcela was born and raised in Texas. She earned an MFA and an MA at the University of Notre Dame and received her Ph.D. in English from the University of Texas at Austin, where she concentrated on Poetics and American Literature, and received a certificate in European Studies. Upon completion of her Ph.D., she was hired by the American University in Washington DC as an Assistant Professor of Literature.

She is a four-time recipient of the Academy of American Poetry Prize, and has won five FLAS prizes for her work in Czech and Yiddish. She has read at the Library of Congress, and her poems have appeared in Verse Daily and on Washington DC metro buses. She is the author of two collections of poetry: Immigrant (2010), and the chapbook Of All The Things That Don't Exist, I Love You Best (2008). She has translated three book-length collections of poetry from Congo-Zaire and 19th century Bohemia, and has worked as a freelance writer and teacher in Venezuela, Germany, and the Czech Republic. Last spring she immigrated to Israel with her young daughter. Taking pains not to wake her, Marcela and I spoke at her Tel Aviv apartment.

JW: How do you see your poetry and your scholarship working together? Your doctoral dissertation is entitled, Ligatures of Time and Space: 1920s New York as a construction site for "American" identity in the long lyric poem. On the face of it that doesn’t seem to have a lot to do with your own poetry.

MS: They are both about immigrants—my own poems and the poems I write about. The book I’m currently writing from my dissertation examines book-length poems written in and about New York in the 1920s by immigrants, or Southern migrants, who were writing self-consciously “American” poems, but not necessarily in English. So I’m asking, what does “American” mean, especially if you’re writing “American” poems in Yiddish, or Spanish, or French? Part of the answer is the Whitman effect – the long lines, the free verse, the colloquial cadences.

But actual immigrants were not only immigrating to America, they were entering a new experience of time and space, for remember, 1920s New York was the most “modern” or technologically advanced city in the world. There were electric lights, elevators and skyscrapers, automobiles, airplanes, subways, traffic lights. And their poetry reflected new sensations of time, new configurations of space.

In addition, immigrants felt they were living two lives simultaneously. As if the past they left behind them in the old world were still going on without them, and in their new, modern lives, they felt out of place, out of step, so to speak. There was no continuity between the two. So what I think is American about these poems is the sensation of dislocated time, or disjointed space.

This is part of the theme behind my poetry collection, Immigrant. If, in my scholarly book, I’m showing the disjunction between times and places (a typically modernist preoccupation) in my poetry, I’m more concerned with bridging the gaps between places and peoples.

JW: I was wondering about that title, because it’s not a theme that really jumps out at me as I read the poems.

MS: You can’t think of immigrants as people who receive second passports, though there are poems about illegal and legal immigrants in Texas, immigration quotas, and poems about vegetables as immigrants, and fruits as castaways. The review of this book that I’m proudest about says the book takes a “deeply nuanced view of what immigration really is and means, a take that’s light years more humane and sophisticated than that of our current U.S. political discourse on this subject.” It makes me so happy.

JW: Who were your influences in terms of poetry?

MS: Wallace Stevens, C.D. Wright, Jorie Graham, Gerald Stern, Caroline Forche, Yehuda Amichai, Pablo Neruda, Cesar Vallejo, Elizabeth Bishop, Paul Celan, William Carlos Williams. Look, at every stage in my writing I have new influences, because I find that when I read someone whose work I really love—and this is poetry that rocks my world or crumbles my old ideas about writing—I start to try on their tricks. I am currently moved by Rachel Zucker, Robyn Schiff, Steve Gehrke, Carrie Fountain, Khaled Mattawa, Sabrina Orah Mark.

JW: I want to ask you about your creative process. What is it that inspires you to write a poem? How much of it is inspiration and how much is thinking about it afterwards?

MS: It’s both. For me, writing is like praying or communicating with your spouse or child: You do it every day, and usually it has its own rewards. But you do it even when you don’t feel like it, or feel inspired. Because the daily discipline and practice prepare you for the moments of inspiration. I try to journal for about 30 minutes a day, no matter what. Also, I carry a notebook with me everywhere I go. A few times every week, I set aside time whether I “have” it or not: a morning, an evening, a whole day to work on a poem or two in a concentrated manner. This is also when I research, if it’s a poem that needs research, and most do.

It’s important to have good tools—etymological dictionaries, field-guides of local birds, cookbooks, city maps, whatever it is you’re writing about. I always have a few projects going on at once, because when you think something is done, it usually isn’t quite done yet. I’ve just completed a poem that I’d been working on in parts for about five years, except I didn’t know that the parts belonged together until recently. I’d done all this research but it was dead and dry. Then I had a conversation with a friend about something else entirely, and a random sentence animated the entire five-page poem.

JW: From looking at your biography and your poetry, I get a sense that you’re from everywhere and from nowhere. Your home is wherever you happen to be at the moment, and your life is whatever you’re working on, whether it’s academic research, teaching, or writing poetry. Can you say a little about how this lifestyle has influenced you as a poet?

 MS: It’s hard to say whether the lifestyle has influenced me as a poet, or the poetry has influenced my lifestyle.

The most obvious influence is language. In learning the languages of the places I’ve lived, I’ve been able to read literature in its original language, and so I’ve been exposed to work that hasn’t been translated. And each language is a new system of thought.

In traveling, I noticed there are things that are familiar to all cultures and all societies; they’re just expressed in different ways. So I like to work with a particular theme while drawing from many different cultures that are grappling with the same questions. Maybe that makes my work more prone to associative logic rather than straight narrative because I’m trying to make a leap, to show connections between people, places and concepts that don’t necessarily jump out at you.

JW: What languages do you speak?

MS: Growing up, I heard as much Spanish and Czech as English, and I studied all three at university. Later I lived in Mexico and worked in Venezuela for a Sephardic foundation; I worked in the Czech Republic in a bilingual Czech-German school teaching Spanish; I studied philosophy in Germany. I also studied Yiddish. I’m the only one who knows what I’m saying when I speak French. I can pray in Hebrew, but that doesn’t really prepare you for Modern Hebrew, which I’m studying now at ulpan.

JW: Your two poetry collections came out fairly recently. What made you decide to publish your poetry only now?

MS: That’s when I found publishers. For the last ten years I’ve been doing three kinds of writing simultaneously: translation, poetry, and academic writing. Because I was doing them all at the same time, publication took a little longer for each of them. They all started getting accepted for publication at about the same time. But I will say that it takes a very long time for poetry to get published. Most people that I’ve talked to submit a manuscript to every national competition or open reading period for at least five years before it gets picked up by a publisher. Poetry is mostly published in competitions. Immigrant was a finalist in four national competitions in America before it finally got accepted. And the chapbook was a finalist in two. Of course once you’re an established poet it’s easier, but to get a first and even a second book out is quite difficult.

JW: One of my favorite poems in “Immigrant” was An Olive, A Letter. This one feels the most “historical” to me.

MS: When I was a freelance writer, I started work on the 500-year history of the Sephardic Jews of the Caribbean and it gave me access to inquisition records. For purposes of expediency, we could only follow the male line, but most of the records were the trials of women, since, with the abolition of public expressions of Judaism, most of the rituals that remained were private—the Shabbat meal, lighting candles, laws of kashrut, Pesach cleaning. Conversa women were easier to convict than men in Portugal and Spain in the 17th and 16th centuries, and most were betrayed by their domestic help. Genevre Fonseca was actually one of the women from the families I was researching. I took her story and combined it with what I had read about a rash of Portuguese messianic movements begun by pre-adolescent and early adolescent girls. I was struck by how the girls tried to transcend the very constricted world in which they found themselves. These girls were thinking about the coming of the messiah, and it took the form of saying, “we don’t have to do housework anymore, we can wear pretty clothes, we can eat good food, we can play music and relax.” Genevre Fonseca was burned at the stake. She was married to a surgeon, and she was very young, about 16. She conspicuously tried to convince people that she wasn’t Jewish. She would sit in front of a window on Shabbat and she’d spin.

JW: But it didn’t help.

MS: No.

JW: I also really liked the poem Blemish. I see that it was originally called Platitudes at Sea. Why did you change the name?

MS: I didn’t think Platitudes at Sea was working very well—because the term "platitudes" removes the focus from the singular experience of loss in the poem. As for the title Blemish, it emphasizes the difficulty we have with renunciation, letting go of desire. It’s a very mystical idea. If you can get rid of your desire …the ego is a big problem. It's the ego that desires things. Maybe the poem expresses the attempt at renouncing your ego with the hope of joining into the horizon. But that hurts, and we don’t want to do that. We all like our own blemishes.

JW: After many years of traveling and writing poetry and experiencing other places you have become the mother of a young child. Has that affected the tension one senses in your poems between rootlessness and belonging?

MS: Aliyah has probably heightened these tensions more. But having a child affected my writing in a way that I wasn’t expecting. I’m a single mother, so my daughter and I have a very close relationship—and, of course, I’ve traveled a lot with her. So for about two years after she was born I didn’t allow myself to feel certain things, because I wanted to have a steady mood for her. It took me a while to re-orient myself as a writer in motherhood. I was afraid at first that I wouldn’t be able to write again. It hasn’t necessarily changed the themes or ideas that I write about. But motherhood has made me a much more patient person, and it’s made me more aware of social connections and community. It’s made me more sleep-deprived, and sometimes that gives one new insights.

JW: You mentioned your recent aliyah to Israel. How did that decision come about?

MS: After my dissertation I was lucky enough to be offered a tenure track position at the American University in Washington. On the winter break of my first year, I took a month off and came to Israel with the intention of just relaxing. And then I met Ellen Spolsky. She told me about the program, and asked me to apply as a visiting poetry instructor. And I came with my one-year-old daughter, and I loved it. I would write home, “I’m working very hard, I’m not making any money, I hardly know anyone, but I’m really happy.” When I was offered the position of Director of the Creative Writing program it seemed like such a wonderful opportunity. Personal circumstances were such that it seemed right for me to come here.

JW: And now that the move is behind you, how are you managing?

MS: I love my job. It’s good to work with students who are open to learning and yet have such rich and varied life experiences. My colleagues are fun, smart, helpful. I need to work on my Hebrew so I can distinguish junk mail from bills, and get to know a broader range of Israeli society. But I think I made a good decision. Even though I swear there are fewer hours in an Israeli day than in other kinds of days, because I can never catch up on all I need to do.

JW: Can you talk a little about the way you read the work of other poets?

MS: Well, it depends on what I’m reading. But in general, I try to see how the poem is put together, and how the structure of the poem gives information. I take that approach in class as well. I want students to look at how the poem means, and not necessarily what it means. Once you figure out how it means, how it creates its worlds and its truths, then most of the time you get what it means as well. Obviously different poems appeal to different aesthetics.

JW: Do you think that prose writers should study poetry as well? What can prose writers learn from studying poetry?

MS: I’ve had many prose writers take poetry workshops and poetry translation classes, and all of them have said that it’s very helpful. Sometimes students of fiction gain an appreciation for the concept of word choice, because poetry is much more selective—it has to be, since most poems are shorter than most fiction. Students gain an appreciation for different kinds of narrative constructs. Poetry often works by connotation rather than denotation, word placement—how words work together. Also, poetry must create its own music and its own form each time, and this is useful to learn. One of the quotes I like to go into class with is from William Carlos Williams, It’s difficult to get the news from poems, but men die every day from lack of what is found there. Poetry really does deal with the most personal and the most universal themes in a very short and concentrated space.

JW: What advice can you offer poets who are trying to combine writing poetry and making a living?

MS: You don’t make money from poetry, even when you’re a successful poet.

JW: Let me put it this way: given that you’re going to have to work to earn a living, how do you structure your life so that you’re able to be in a place where you can write poetry?

MS: Well, that depends on you. I found that when I was a freelancer it was very hard for me to write poetry because my mind was being used for such similar work. Of course after I quit, I realized it had given me a lot of material, but at the time it was very difficult to do both. Many people enjoy the combination of poetry and manual labor. I have friends that are carpenters, gardeners—wine making seems to be a popular profession. I wouldn’t mind doing that myself, except I wouldn’t want to quit my current job. The main thing is setting aside time to write, making sure that you have the mental space, and the mental energy. You have to stay in touch with whatever it is that feeds the poetry.

JW: What is most important in teaching poetry? What things are most important for you to convey to your students?

MS: My goal is to give people the tools they need to read and love poetry. Many people don’t have a daily familiarity with poetry, and their only experience of it is being forced to memorize it or “analyze” it in high school. So it’s a dreaded subject sometimes. Sometimes people are trained to read poetry as autobiography, or as a puzzle or set of symbols to be translated into prose. But that’s missing the point. When I teach, I try to show my students a wide range of poetry, and we look at different strategies for how to read. We look at rhyme, at meter; we look at different genres of poetry and try to understand what they’re for. Some poems work almost completely on structural elements alone, and once you understand the construction of a poem, that’s the joy. You can’t teach somebody to like something, but you can teach them how to appreciate it by giving them the tools that they need to understand how it works. One of the things I love most about teaching poetry is the “conversion experience” of people who are taking poetry classes because they have to. That moment in the semester when they stop and say, “Hey, I really like this!” That’s what I live for, as a teacher.

A  Selection of Marcela Sulak’s Poetry
An Olive, A letter
Comforts of Home
Elegy for Arturo Puente
Central Park

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